THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 780, July 20, 2014
The United States government is a police state,
run by maniacs who hate humanity. The United
States government is not civilisation.
Self-Publishing: A Brief Guide for Beginners
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
Why, you can ask, should I care about self-publishing? Writing as Richard Blake, I've had six big novels brought out by Hodder & Stoughton. Editorial control is minimal. The reviews are good. I've been translated into half a dozen languages. Sales more than offset the publisher's cut. There's money in those books, and prestige. So why self-publishing?
The answer is control. Hodder doesn't mind the libertarian tinge I give my historical fiction. Everything else I write, though, is very libertarian. British publishers see that as a niche market with little return. I did find a publisher for my latest novel, The Break. But the changes demanded were more than I fancied. The book is a post-apocalyptic thriller—no problems there. The problem is that it's also a brutal satire on our leftist managerial state. That had to go, I was told, or be toned down. I disagreed. And so, together with my earlier Churchill Memorandum, it's joined the long list of my other self-published books.
Now, if, outside my historical fiction, I don't write primarily for money, I do like to make some kind of profit overall. Take away the publisher's cut, and you don't need to sell that many copies to make a profit. But the idea ought to be to make a good profit. Of my twelve self-published book, two have made a good profit. I think The Break will do still better. It's here, then, if you are an aspiring self-publisher, that I may have some worthwhile advice to give. How do you make a success of self-publication?
My general advice is to think of production and marketing as a single process. I prefer to leave the writing outside this process. You are not obliged to. You can begin by asking what books are selling at the moment, and write one for that market. I don't. I write what I want to, and accept that sometimes it won't sell. But, if I don't care what is selling, I do pay attention to how things are selling. Now, and for the foreseeable future, this means a primary focus on the various kinds of e-book.
You can ignore any claims of just how big this market is. It's so dynamic, and so highly-segmented, that last year's aggregates are worthless. All that should matter to you is that entry costs are so low, and so many people nowadays have some kind of e-reader, that you'd be mad not to focus on this point of entry. I believe Jamie Oliver still gets most of his income from selling books in glossy hard cover format. But that's Jamie Oliver. What I find is that, for every hard copy I sell of my books, I sell twenty e-books. It will probably be the same for you. The strategy, then, must be to focus on e-books. Here is how to do it.
First, make sure your book is finished. Dickens and Wilkie Collins could publish in serial format. You can't. People will buy a series of novels. They don't like instalments of a single novel. Nor do they like books riddled with typos and continuity errors and systematic spelling mistakes. Find some friends who are reasonably literate and who like you more than they feel obliged to flatter you. Make them your beta readers. Listen to their advice. Inevitably, there will be typos. Your friends are unlikely to be professional copy editors. I had four methodical readers for The Break. One of the first reviewers still found a dozen embarrassing typos. These are now corrected, but I have no doubt there are more. All I can say is that these are unlikely to be glaring.
Second, format your e-book. Amazon publishes a good style guide. Read it carefully, and follow the instructions. Briefly put, you must avoid typesetting in the traditional sense. You can have bold and italics, but little more. You are producing a text for readers who have their own ideas about font size and line spacing, and who expect their present or as yet uninvented reading devices not to be limited by your preferences. The best rule, therefore, is nothing clever in the formatting.
Third, decide where your e-book will be published. Probably for you, as for me, Amazon is the biggest e-book sales platform. It is, at the moment, an aggressive sales platform. If you give it exclusive sale rights, you can enrol in Kindle Select. This will give you a 70 per cent royalty, and the ability to run price promotions. There are, however, other sales platforms— Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Overdrive, and so forth. On the one hand, go with them as well, and your Amazon royalty drops to 30 per cent, and you can't run promotions. On the other, these are large and potentially rich markets. For whatever reason, their customers don't like Amazon. They might like you.
Though most of my revenue is from Amazon, I've chosen to cover the whole market. I supply the other sale platforms via Smashwords, which is a sales platform in itself and a distributor to others. I upload one formatted text to Smashwords, and this is converted and sent off. Apart from the chance of becoming a hit on some platform I've never heard about, the benefit of Smashwords is that I can make special coupons to give free or discounted copies. Also, I'm impressed by the Smashwords formatting and marketing guides, and feel obliged to do business with a company that gives such good free advice.
Fourth, sort out your taxes with the American Government. The Internal Revenue Service is a monstrous organisation that tries to tax any foreigner who sells books in the United States. If you aren't American, and don't live in America, you can claim tax treaty rights. As an Englishman, I can pay pay zero tax on American sales. But enforcing that right is designed to be a pain. The rules are opaque and keep changing. If you look on the website of any sales platform, you will find advice on getting a Tax Identification Number. It took me a year of correspondence, ending in a visit to the American Embassy in London, to get mine. Good luck if you can get yours faster.
Fifth, don't forget hard copy. You're unlikely to grow rich from printed books. If you go with a print on demand service like Lulu, your unit costs won't be far off the competitive retail price of your book. You'll get much lower costs from a jobbing printer. But you'll need to print about a thousand copies, and that's about three dozen heavy boxes you'll need to store. Daily trips to the Post Office soon get on your nerve. Oh, and there's the risk of suicidal despair when you find a so far unspotted typo on the back cover.
This being said, hard copy isn't dead. Some readers prefer it. Most reviewers demand it. Nothing beats a stack of hard copy to sign and sell if you give a talk or a reading. Above all, it has a long future in the gifts market.
My opening strategy with The Break has been to make the e-book available everywhere at a competitive price— $5.99/£3.59 is about right for its market. I've then spared no effort on typesetting the hardback and paperback editions. Because they will make absolutely lush Christmas presents, I've priced them on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. My only compromise has been an identical paperback edition priced at £9.99. Because it's for sale only via Lulu, the unit cost allows a lower price. The critical sales are of the e-book. But hard copy is available for those who want it.
All this being said, what about promotion? You've created your product. You've made it available. How do you sell it? Well, if this is the advice you've been waiting for, you'll be disappointed. The generalities are easy. You need attention. You must tell everyone you know that you've published your book, and where to buy it. You must scatter free and discounted copies about like confetti at a wedding. You must beg for reviews on Amazon. You must get mentions and endorsements on the right blogs. You must start your own website and blog, and drive traffic to them. You must write articles like this, and get them published wherever you can. If you have other books out there, you must make sure that readers of one are never more than two clicks away from buying another. Mainstream publishers trade largely on their names. They can get hard copy into the shops with a single telephone call. If you're going it alone, you need to be inventive with your marketing, and politely relentless. These are the generalities. It's the specifics that are hard. They depend too much on who you are, where and when you are, and what you've written, to be explained in less than a book.
But one piece of advice I can give to justify the effort of reading this far. Don't pay anyone to do your marketing for you. Maybe you'll find yourself in the hands of a good shepherd. More likely, he'll have a set of fleecing shears behind his back. Look at my general advice. There are reams of free specific advice on the Internet. Think for yourself. If you're creative enough to write a book, you're bright enough to go the last—albeit giant—step of selling it.
And here is my last piece of advice. Try to make sure your book is worth reading. All the production and marketing in the world won't make you rich or famous from writing trash. But if you have a decent book to sell, now is a fine time to be alive. Good luck. Sean Gabb's novel, The Break, came out on the 2nd June 2014. Writing as Richard Blake, his historical novel, Curse of Babylon, came out on the 2nd January 2014.
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